fiction by Leo Coffey

The crawdads in my bucket slosh around as I walk, sometimes splashing water onto my ankles. I like the way they move, sliding back and forth across the white plastic like globs of spit sliding down a drain. Craws are quick critters, much harder to catch by hands alone. I knew If Papa caught me with his fishing net, he was liable to start yelling, maybe even take my bedroom door off its hinges again. 

I walk into my father’s tool shed and sit my bucket down on his work counter. The space is packed with empty milk jugs filled with nails and screws; tools hooked to a piece of plywood hoisted to the side of the shed; an oil can full of residual burnt garbage. I walk around a blue tarp that separates the shed in two and grab a small shovel from its hook, put the net back in its place. It’s then that I notice a lawn mower I’ve never seen before at the shed’s entrance sitting pretty like a monument. The hood of the mower is colored like a red-capped mushroom. The paint is chipped in odd places so its exterior appears tarnished. To my surprise, the blades are especially clean and might be the only new part. I hop on the mower seat and imagine I’m spinning circles in a hotrod before remembering the crawdads. 

Behind the shed I dig the craw fighting hole about six inches deep and empty the bucket into the cool red mud. The crawdads grab at each other’s claws, pulling and rolling over each other with such passion that you’d almost think they were making love. The biggest one of the bunch is being tag-teamed by a few smaller ones, and after a short fight, they rip his claws off and leave him defenseless. I reach in to grab the fallen soldier as Papa turns the corner wearing a T-shirt that reads CORNBREAD FED styled with a pair of grease-spotted blue jeans. I watch him take a swig out of a glass mason jar he’d removed from his pants pocket. He doesn’t notice me at first, but when he does, he stops dead in his tracks, tucks the liquid away, and lifts his hat to scratch what prickly mess of brown hair remains underneath. 

He looks old in a way I haven’t noticed before. He no longer carries his weight in muscle like he did in old photographs. A beer belly peeps below the hem of his T-shirt anytime he raises his arms too high. It was no question that he had been handsome at some point earlier in life, but the world had worn him down. It would take more out of him than he had to give to try and hang onto any trace of what once was. 

“Where’d you get the mower?” I ask. 

He eyeballs me for a moment and smirks as if amused by my curiosity. 

“Found a few shiny things lying around. All things nobody’d miss,” he says. His voice is smooth and steady, never wavering, not even in moments of dishonesty. The cadence he speaks with makes him identifiable as a man whose family had been in this area for generations. The roots of our family tree had these North Carolina hills in a chokehold. 

Papa walks over to the hood and rolls his fingers across it like it’s a snare drum. 

“She’s pretty, ain’t she?”

I nod my head a bit, holding the now-dead crawdad. Papa peers at my hand and then back at me with eyes equally dark and glossy. For a moment I think I see something soft and delicate hidden beneath the look of resentment tattooed on his face. A brown glob of tobacco juice dribbles from his mouth and that softness disappears. 

“I’m heading over to that Parker lady’s house to mow,” he says. “When I get back, I want you to help me with this here yard. We make it look good, might bring in more business with the neighbors.”

Mama and I knew he had a knack for stealing closer to birthdays and Christmas, although we never spoke of this knowledge. Papa wasn’t foolish enough to steal the mower, seeing as flashy and noticeable as it was, but he’d stolen enough to swap for money. He’d probably gone to Butler’s or the Cherokee Trading Post. People that run businesses like that don’t care where the goods are coming from because, if the cops come asking questions, they will point fingers at whoever’s running. 

I stand there and watch him drive away on the mower, stirring up red dust in the driveway behind him, his neck flushed like he’d caught a rash, his spine curled over like a bow. He has one hand on the wheel and the speed set on the rabbit. The engine’s roar turns to a muffle the further he gets away until it becomes nothing but a buzz in my ear. 


The first time Papa ever hit me was on the Fourth of July. I’d asked Mama if I could wear one of her sparkly T-shirts and she told me I could. The shirt was bright pink with bedazzled fireworks splattered across the front. When Papa walked into the living room that day and saw me with the shirt on, it was like he saw a ghost. 

“What the fuck are you wearing?” he asked me. 

He cracked his knuckles. The veins between his fingers curled purple like worms. When I didn’t respond, he stomped over to where I sat on the couch and swept his hand as quick as a windshield wiper across my face. Mama sat still next to me, afraid to move. I brought my palm up to my cheek to feel the warmth he’d generated on my skin. Even when I began to cry, he continued to tower over me. 

“Raise your arms,” he said.  

I didn’t move, and he continued to repeat himself louder until I eventually lifted my arms.

“Ain’t no boy of mine wearing some shit with sparkles all over it,” he said.

“He just liked it the way it looked, Adam.”

Footsteps rattled the trailer as Papa walked over to the kitchen drawer, shirt in hand. He grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer and cut the shirt into pieces, leaving the scraps strewed about the floor like confetti. 

Soon as she heard his truck pull out of the driveway, Mama got up and started frantically picking up the pieces. I grabbed the broom from the pantry and held the dustpan while she swept. We were squatting right next to each other for a few minutes before she finally broke the silence.

“He does it to me, too,” she said.

“Does what?” 

“He hits me.”

I wasn’t surprised. I’d seen the bruises, the way she clammed up when he touched her. But hearing her admit that he’d hit her with the same hand that had struck me made me feel sick to my stomach. 


When Papa wasn’t around, Mama would tell me I was beautiful. She knew how it made me feel. Knew I hated being called boy, too. Mama was the kind of woman that paid attention to detail and never said too much in a crowded room. I liked that about her.

One day after Papa had brought home some extra money from mowing, he told Mama to go get her hair done at Walmart.

“Do it up real nice–the way I like it,” Papa told her.

“Can I go with her?” I asked.

“I don’t see why not,” he said. “Seems you haven’t been misbehaving lately.” 

Mama nodded and told him thank you. She took me by the hand and led us out the door.

On the drive there, I asked her if I could grow my hair out. Her hair was long, brown, and so soft you could stuff a pillow with it. When I looked at her, I was reminded of everything I wanted to be and everything I wanted to outrun. 

She didn’t say anything at first, she just looked at the road as the solid lines broke away into dashes. I got hopeful for a second and could feel my heart jumping in my chest like a trout at a May-fly. The truck came to a halt at a red light, and she turned to me and said, “Your Papa wouldn’t like that, Sal.” 

Sunlight crept through the truck window and landed on her skin like a handprint, just as her words had struck down my dreams. She had bruises that rounded her neck like a string of blackberries. I could tell she’d tried to cover the marks with concealer. I turned away from her and let the warm tears fall down my face.


Papa comes speeding back into the yard half an hour after. He parks the mower in front of the porch and hollers my name so loud I think he might be trying to talk to God. I spot him from the stairs laying in the grass with his head stuck under the mower like his top half has been eaten.

“You holler for me?” I ask.

“Son, there you are. I need you to help me fix this belt. I ran over a limb and it jerked the son of a bitch loose.” 

He grunts and kicks the wheel from where he lay. 

“What do you want me to do?” 

“Goddammit, boy, what ain’t right in your head? Help me, help me, help me.”

I descend the stairs and cock myself up under the mower on the opposite side. I can see him clear as day through the space between. Sweat drips and meanders through the wrinkles on his face, falling onto the metal like a dawdled raindrop. He licks a few beads from his upper lip and resumes to bite his tongue for deepened concentration.

He tugs and pulls on his side. I situate my left hand underneath the deck for a better grip on the guard while tugging the black band like a stubborn piece of taffy. I mirror his movements, pulling my arm back and forth like I am trying to kick off a weed eater. 

After a few good tugs he says, “It ain’t budging” and lets loose. He stands up straight to reveal the deep impression in the layers of grass and mud his knees had made. He rests one hand on the hood of the mower and lifts his other hand to scratch a pad of hair on his chin he’d missed while shaving. 

“Get up and quit acting like a girl!” he says. My whole body throbs as he speaks, and I can feel my heartbeat between my legs. 
“What’s so wrong about being a girl?! What if I want to be a girl?” I yell. 
He is frozen still, and for a moment I think the world has already ended. 

I remain with my shoulder nestled up against the mower and watch as Papa’s shadow creeps over me. Before I can remove my arm or ask what our next step is, he turns the key and flicks the lever to drop the blade. 

Blood splatters across my shirt like someone has pulled back on the bristles of a paintbrush and let paint fly. I feel my eyes fill with water. Vomit bubbles in my throat; it’s like someone has dropped Mentos into a bottle of Coke.

I jerk my hand loose from beneath the guard. The trees turn to a muddled haze around me. My hand feels like someone has shot it clean off. The sweat on my forehead triples like tadpoles as a fiery feeling spreads up and down my arm until I can’t tell where the pain starts and where it ends. 

I sit up and lift my hand to find the tip of my middle finger hanging loose just past the nail, pink skin torn back like fallen petals. 

My hand is so numb I can’t even feel myself poking at the wound. All I can feel is heat.

When Papa catches sight of my hand, he gets to cackling so hard he can’t catch a breath. Tears pool from my eyes and he stomps over to me, grabs my hand, squeezing my wrist hard as he stares me straight in the eye. 

“Get up and quit acting like a girl!” he says. My whole body throbs as he speaks, and I can feel my heartbeat between my legs. 

“What’s so wrong about being a girl?! What if I want to be a girl?” I yell. 

He is frozen still, and for a moment I think the world has already ended. 

“What the fuck did you just say to me?” He pulls me closer to him by the collar of my shirt–so close I can smell the alcohol on his tongue.

“I said what if I want to be a girl!”

He releases my arm and throws me onto the ground. I let my head hang beside me and he cusses under his breath, muttering something about shitheads on the internet.  

“I don’t know who you’ve been hanging around with, kid, but you got a pecker and a sack, that means what it means.”  

He grabs my hand again and lathers his own palms with my blood before returning to his side of the mower. He proceeds to coat the belt with my blood like butter before taking hold of the rubber. 

“Now get down there and pull!” 

I don’t know why or how, but I pull with all the anger that has festered beneath my skin, then in some miraculous moment, the belt slides back into place, mixing the scent of pennies with that of oil and smoke. A smile wider than I’ve ever seen in pictures spreads across Papa’s face, splitting his lips to show a row of jagged teeth.

“Well, I’ll be damned. Just needed something to get you going.”

He wipes what blood of mine remains onto his shirt and slouches back down on the mower. I bundle the fabric of my own shirt around my finger, squeezing tight to form a clot. The world starts to spin around me once more and I can hardly make out Papa’s face. 

“Go on inside and let your Mama bandage that finger up. Ain’t nothing that can’t fix itself.”

I stay silent as I stumble back up the stairs and turn to watch as a blurry Papa pulls off on the mower. He circles the dogwood that stands where our yard meets the street and turns the blades on.

I don’t even process getting inside. I find Mama in the parlor folding laundry. She stops what she is doing as soon as she sees my hand. She sits me down quickly, and I down a glass of water she’d left sitting stagnant on the coffee table. Before I know it, she’s wrapping gauze around my finger and crying. I can finally feel my heart slowing down. 

She squats down in front of me where I sit on the rocker. She has on a sundress with daisies bleached white from years of wear. She looks beautiful with her big green eyes and smooth skin. She looks like the kind of woman men dream about. 

“I heard you yelling,” she says. “Ain’t ever heard you yell like that before.”

She takes a dish rag to my hands, soaking it every so often in a bowl of soapy water.

“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “Didn’t do any good.”

“You did something I’ve never done. You’ve got guts.”

I grin for a moment with a sadness I cannot explain.

“Why do you let him do this to us?” I ask. 

She pauses and dunks the rag in the water.

“We ain’t got no other choice. He loves us, you know. He just has a funny way of showing it, that’s all.”

I want to tell her I don’t believe in love, but instead I just nod my head. 

After Mama finishes cleaning me up, I go to my bedroom and lay with my hand crossed over my chest like it’s been slung. In-between the sound of Papa rolling by my window on the mower, I soak in the silence of my room and let my eyes bounce from wall to wall, each covered in magazine clippings of beautiful landscapes from various national parks across the country. I don’t want to leave this world of mine behind, but it feels like more of a cage than a home most days. I’d come to realize that. It was a hard bite to take, but I took it. I chewed it up and spit it out like a line of black spit I’d packed into the front of my lip.

Around ten o’clock, the sound of Papa snoring away echoes through the halls. He has always been a heavy sleeper, and as long as he was comfortable, that was all that ever mattered. 

I get up from my bed and grab a duffle bag from my closet. I fill it with everything I can fit. A few pairs of underwear and socks, my Great Lakes fishing guide, a switchblade, and some purple nail polish Mama had given me for Christmas. I don’t know where I am headed, but I know anywhere is better than here.

I drop my bag at the front door on my way to Mama’s room. She is sound asleep until I shake her awake. 

“Mama,” I whisper.

Her eyes peel open and she stumbles over her words. Even in total darkness, I can still make out the bags under her eyes.

“What is it?” she asks. 

“I packed a bag,” I say. “I want you to come with me.”

“What? My Lord, child. We can’t just leave. He’ll find us,” she says. 

“He won’t. He’s got no way of knowing where we’ll go.”

“And where’s that? Out of state? We got no money.”

“All we need is a bus ticket. I’ve got enough saved up from my birthday to get us both to Asheville.” 

You ain’t spent that money yet?” she asks.

“Been saving it for the right time.” 

She smiles, and for a minute I think she might roll over and go back to sleep. But instead, she throws her arm around my neck and cups her hand around my ear. She speaks softly, as if afraid that Papa might somehow hear.

“Okay,” she says. That’s all she says.

It don’t take Mama no time to get a bag packed and we are out the door and walking before I know it. 

The blue lights on the Greyhound bus are bright and blinding. The aisle between seats is cold and tight, and comforting in some strange way. It is like we are walking through a tunnel straight into another world. 

We sit in the very back row and watch others board. An elderly gentleman takes a seat at the front of the bus right behind the driver. He begins to hum some melancholic, liquid melody that makes my insides swirl. Mama reaches over and grabs my hand. She runs her fingers over the bandage she’d wrapped earlier and brings the wound to her lips for a healing kiss.

“No more hurting,” she says. She puts my hand back in my lap and pulls out some bright red lipstick from her go-bag. She pops the cap off and pivots her body to face me.

"Come here," she says. “Pucker your lips.” 

push my lips forward and she cups my chin with her hand. She spreads the lipstick across my top lip first and then the bottom, grinning ear to ear as she does. “Blot them. Like this,” she says. She rubs her lips together, pulling them further into her mouth and pushing them back out. I do as she does, mirroring her in different ways than I’d mirrored Papa. The bitter taste of the lipstick bleeds onto my tongue. When I am finished, she takes a tissue to my lips to make it all look even.

"There," she says. “Pretty as ever.”

A total of five of us are on the bus when the driver releases the brakes. I am the only child. Mama falls asleep next to me thirty minutes into the drive, her head resting on my shoulder. 

I wonder if she’s dreaming about where we are going, somewhere beautiful where the mountains rise and fall like breathing. Or perhaps she isn’t dreaming at all but floating in a sea of darkness high above the trees and the mountaintops, like a flash of glitter picked up by the wind. 

Leo Coffey is a trans fiction writer born and raised in Bostic, North Carolina, a small Appalachian community in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from UNC Asheville and is a fiction reader for Reckon Review. His stories have appeared in Hawaii Pacific Review, Appalachian Review, and The Dead Mule (forthcoming).  He currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee with his partner, where he works as a bookseller at Union Avenue Books.  

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